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The State of the National League West, Part 1

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The holidays are behind us, the calendar has flipped, and spring training starts in less than 60 days. It's time to assess the Giants' ability to two-peat, as we like to say in the sporting world.

Their first and main obstacle, of course, is the rest of the division. Let's take a look in two parts at where the other NL West teams stand in early January.

Arizona Diamondbacks
2010 record: 65-97, last place
Est. 2011 payroll: $67 M

They have a new GM, Kevin Towers, who in San Diego often kept the Padres in contention despite a low payroll and unenthusiastic fanbase. He will rebuild the Snakes. But not in one year. They'll probably hit plenty with Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Kelly Johnson, Miguel Montero, and Chris Young on board. Coming in, Towers said two priorities were a lineup with fewer strikeouts and a better bullpen. Trading Mark Reynolds to Baltimore will help with the former. They lost Adam LaRoche but gained Xavier Nady, Melvin Mora, and Geoff Blum; whether that means fewer strikeouts, I'm not sure, but Arizona is still leaning heavily on big whiffers like Upton (152 Ks in 2010), Johnson (148), and Young (145). Are Ks are red herring? If those three, plus Montero, mash, and a couple of the veteran in-fills have nice years, it could be a helluva lineup, strikeouts be damned. 

But unless Towers pulls rabbits out of hats between now and April, the Arizona pitching staff probably won't hold up its end of the bargain. JJ Putz is so far the only significant free-agent pickup, and the bullpen still isn't far removed, save for the removal of Chad Qualls, from last year's train wreck. The new rotation ace is Ian Kennedy, who stymied the Giants twice in five starts against them last year. Behind him is Daniel Hudson, an end-of-season phenom who came over from the Chisox in the Edwin Jackson trade. Behind him is Joe Saunders, who is probably good for 200 innings and and ERA in the low 4s. 

Kneejerk January Assessment: I don't fear Arizona becoming a sleeper contender, but if young guys step up in the bullpen and all the young hitters break out, it could be one of those annoying teams that wreak minor havoc all year.    

Colorado Rockies
2010 record: 83-79, 3rd place
Est. 2011 payroll: $95 M

They've made a big splash locking up two young stars, SS Troy Tulowitzki and OF Carlos Gonzalez (aka "Beane's Folly") to long-term -- and I mean loooooooong-term -- contracts that expire after 2020 and 2017, respectively. But that has little import on the 2011 Rockies, unless long-term job security makes them both instantly fat and lazy. More likely is that both will continue to be two of the best young players in the league, backed up by a few young guys with a small chance at stardom (Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith) and a fading but still Heltonish Todd Helton.

Other than Tulo and Gonzalez, they finally have good young pitching, though a huge question for 2011 is whether Ubaldo Jimenez is really the First-Half Guy of 2010 (13 ER in his first 14 starts!), the late June/July Guy (28 ER in 6 starts), or somewhere in between. Note that he finished strong, striking out 10 Cardinals in an October three-hit shutout.

Behind Ubaldo, De La Rosa, Chacin and Hammel are all young guys with great stuff, but none have proven they can go wire to wire. De La Rosa went to free agency but re-signed with Colorado. If the starting pitchers stay healthy, play to their potential, and the hitters do what they do, the Rockies might be able to outslug teams in the House of Horrors and occasionally outpitch them at sea level. One key will be journeyman bullpenner Matt Belisle, who had a career year in 2010.

Kneejerk January Assessment: Know it, learn it, live it: The Rockies are a formidable foe. Horribly dressed, and cursed with a ridiculous helium-filled theme park of a stadium, but formidable nonetheless.

Coming next: The San Diego Padres and The Nauseating Nedsters

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